Tinnitus is very often a symptom of hearing loss or other medical issue. However, the ringing, buzzing, whooshing, or roaring in the ears can be exacerbated or even triggered by stress. When the tinnitus then causes more stress, this creates a vicious cycle of ringing that causes anxiety that causes ringing!
A person’s reaction to tinnitus depends on how the autonomic nervous system responds to the sound of tinnitus. Our brains process everything we encounter through an emotional filter. This filter (the limbic system) helps us determine if something is positive, benign, or possibly a threat. While tinnitus is technically “just a sound”, it can be much more than that to some.
The sound in your head or ears may cause you significant problems, but you may meet others who say they have had tinnitus for 20 years and have just “learned to ignore it”. When your brain (subconsciously) decides that the tinnitus is a potential threat, it can cause stress, anxiety, irritability, and make it almost impossible to ignore this intrusive sound. We are not yet sure what makes some brains ignore and others perceive the sound as a threat.
Just like your body enters “fight or flight” mode when you encounter a genuine threat (think an intruder in your home), tinnitus can trigger the same physical and emotional reaction. When your brain categorizes tinnitus as a possible threat, it can trigger increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and sleeplessness. This makes it very difficult to concentrate or relax when you have tinnitus. Just try to read a magazine while someone is trying to break into your home!
One of the ways we attempt to combat this stress response is through relaxation exercises. Anything you can do to combat the autonomic stress response can be helpful. Progressive Muscle Relaxation, deep breathing, mediation, and yoga are all helpful tools to combat the stress response. Some patients report a reduction in the intrusiveness of their tinnitus with the use of these methods over time. In addition, you may try a simple form of sound therapy: add calming sounds or white noise to your calming routines to help soothe the bothersome tinnitus and aid in relaxation. For more information on tinnitus and tinnitus treatment options or to schedule an appointment with an audiologist.